Phillies click on all fronts to shut out Braves in Game 1

October 8th, 2023

PHILADELPHIA -- Phillies manager Rob Thomson rounded up his relievers after batting practice on Saturday. He wanted to give them a heads up.

“He told every reliever, ‘Go early to the bullpen,’” Phillies left-hander José Alvarado said. “I’m going crazy today. Not crazy, like aggressive. And the result? He made it, using a lot of relievers today.”

Thomson executed his pitching plan to perfection as the Phillies played a nearly perfect game to beat the Braves, 3-0, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Truist Park. They entered Game 1 of the best-of-five series knowing they not only had to beat Atlanta ace Spencer Strider, who had dominated them in seven career regular-season starts, but also had to shut down what some have called the greatest offensive team in baseball history.

The Phillies did both. They got to Strider and they shut out the Braves, who were held scoreless at home for the first time since Aug. 28, 2021.

"That’s one of the best teams in baseball, one of the best offenses and one of the best starters in the game, and we were able to take them down [in] Game 1,” Bryce Harper said.

It is an especially huge result because the Phillies will have Zack Wheeler on the mound in Game 2 on Monday and Aaron Nola in Game 3 on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.

“I think everyone is locked in on heading home 2-0,” Nick Castellanos said.

Phillies left-hander Ranger Suárez started Game 1, but he did not last long by design. The Braves had an MLB-best .871 OPS against lefties this season, the seventh-highest OPS by any team against southpaws since 1974.

Suárez retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced, but he got the hook with runners on first and second and two outs in the fourth.

“You hate to take a guy out,” Thomson said. “He’s pitching well. He knows he’s pitching well.”

But the Phillies believed they had something to neutralize the Braves’ lineup: high velocity from their bullpen. Philadelphia's relievers averaged an MLB-best 96.3 mph on their fastballs this season. (They averaged 97.0 mph in Game 1.) Atlanta had a .509 slugging percentage on pitches slower than 97 mph this season, but it slugged a mere .396 against pitches 97 mph or harder.

Phillies right-hander Jeff Hoffman replaced Suárez in the fourth with the game in the balance, opening the relief parade. He walked Marcell Ozuna to load the bases, but he then struck out Michael Harris II swinging to end the inning.

Seranthony Domínguez then started the fifth. He had fallen on the depth chart in recent weeks because of his inconsistencies, but he found himself in his first big spot in some time. Domínguez gave up a couple hits, but he struck out Ronald Acuña Jr. looking on a 98 mph fastball and struck out Austin Riley swinging on a 98.5 mph fastball to end the inning.

“I'm OK,” Domínguez said. “I know how it works. I know they're trying to do their best to win the game and I respect that. I feel confident with myself. I know I can help the team.”

José Alvarado, Orion Kerkering, Matt Strahm and Craig Kimbrel followed, each putting up a zero as well.

“Everything worked out,” Castellanos said.

It cannot be overstated how much Strider has dominated the Phillies in seven career regular-season starts. He was 7-0 with a 2.01 ERA in his career vs. Philly, having struck out 67 and walked eight in 44 2/3 innings. But Bryson Stott laced an 0-2 fastball to left field for a two-out RBI single in the fourth inning to score Harper and give the Phils a 1-0 lead. That was all they needed to beat Atlanta’s young fireballer, who also took the loss against Philly in Game 3 of last year's NLDS after allowing five runs over 2 1/3 innings.

Stott led baseball with 82 two-out hits this season.

“I think he’d be a fantastic cricket player with the amount of foul balls he hits,” Castellanos said.

Harper smashed a first-pitch slider from Strider into the right-field stands for a solo home run in the sixth inning to make it 2-0, connecting with a 115.3 mph exit velocity. Strider had never allowed a batter to put a ball in play against him at more than 111.8 mph.

“Strider, man, he's one of the best in the game, if not the best right now, striking guys out,” Harper said. “He had a phenomenal year, so it’s always a tough at-bat. You know he's going to come at you and throw his best at you. So just trying to get a pitch over and was able to get the slider up and do some damage.”

After tossing a scoreless seventh in his postseason debut, Kerkering walked Acuña to start the eighth. The lefty Strahm came in and immediately allowed a single to Riley to put runners on first and second with no outs. Matt Olson flied out to center for the first out, which advanced Acuña Jr. to third.

The Braves had something cooking, but once again, Thomson’s pitching plan came through, this time by way of his star infielder.

Ozzie Albies smashed a hard grounder up the middle. Phillies shortstop Trea Turner dove to his left, caught it, scrambled to his knees and flipped the ball to the second baseman Stott, who threw to first for an inning-ending double play.

“I think it's the best play I've ever seen,” Domínguez said. “The game, the moment like that. That was incredible.”

Turner pumped his fists and screamed. It cemented the Phillies’ seventh consecutive Game 1 postseason win, the fifth-best run by any team in MLB history.

“You could feel the moment,” Turner said.